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Newton Emerson: Sinn Féin will not be told what to call the Republic

Twenty years of governing without saying Northern Ireland shows party is not about to change

Leo Varadkar is on a hiding to nothing complaining that Sinn Féin will not call the Irish State by its proper name.

Writing in a Sunday newspaper last weekend, the Taoiseach said references to the “Free State” and the “Southern State” are like “burning a tricolour before our eyes”.

If this is a fundamental test for Fine Gael of republican fitness for office, it is in for a long wait. Sinn Féin has managed to govern Northern Ireland on and off for two decades without using the northern state's proper name. Many people initially mocked or complained about this, doubting it could be sustainable. They underestimated the persistence of republican rhetorical trainspotting. One of Sinn Féin's first acts on the restoration of Stormont two months ago was to order civil servants in departments the party controls not to use "Northern Ireland", and also to change email addresses from ".uk" to ".info".

Some unionists queried if this had free speech implications or a discriminatory impact on officials but the row barely lasted a day. Who has the patience to constantly push back against another person’s vocabulary?


The aspect of absurdity in Sinn Féin’s position was nicely debunked in 2016 by its former culture minister, Carál Ní Chuilín. Chided by unionists for refusing to utter the words “Northern Ireland”, she replied “Northern Ireland is a phrase I will say but not a term I will use.”

That seems fair enough, even if the phrase could be heard more often. There is no reason to believe Sinn Féin would stick any less to its guns in a Dublin coalition, especially now it is polling almost twice as high in the South as in the North, without having endorsed the proper titles of either.

Unionist sympathy on this point is constrained, as too many of us have been shouted at by southerners for getting the name of their country wrong. Republic of Ireland is an official description, yet Irish Republic, for some reason, is an outrageous insult. Perhaps we should start saying “Mexico” again until morale improves.

Special pity is due to English people who say “Éire”, the official name of the State in its first official language, yet somehow an even more outrageous insult. The opposite rule applies, inexplicably, to saying “Irish prime minister” instead of “Taoiseach”. Questions on this are not tolerated.

In practice, English people never use these terms with the intention of causing offence. A good rule, north and south, would be to take no offence where none is meant.

It is no accident that unionists finally fell in love with the term "Northern Ireland" with the rise of nationalist and republican parties in the North who refused to utter it

The irony of state-naming rows on “This Island”, to use the official Belfast or Good Friday Agreement description, is that “Northern Ireland” was itself an original compromise term – the “Derry/Londonderry” of its day.

Unionists wanted the new state to be called Ulster, to the horror of successive Irish governments. The argument was similar to the Greece versus Macedonia (now North Macedonia) dispute of recent years and occasionally threatened to become as serious.

It is no accident that unionists finally fell in love with the term “Northern Ireland” with the rise of nationalist and republican parties in the North who refused to utter it.


Compromise terms suffer a form of inflation and it is usually the side least comfortable with the status quo that drives its direction. If we could agree a new name for Northern Ireland, for example, dissident republicans would immediately crucify Sinn Féin for using it.

This process of inflation has removed "Ulster" from common parlance and is taking the once ubiquitous "province" with it, although Northern Ireland could be said to be a province of the United Kingdom. A related fate awaits "mainland", despite Britain inarguably being the UK mainland. Few dare to use this lyrical expression in mixed company for fear of having "are you on Rathlin?" screeched back at them. If only unionists had sought to protect such terminology with half the effort put into inventing Ulster-Scots.

A similar process will now escalate in the Republic. Sinn Féin is not about to have words put in its mouth. It will settle on its own term for the State, or qualify its use of the official term, then wait for inflation to catch up with everyone else. Whether or not the party ever fully succeeds, this is the future direction of debate.

Dragging the media into the debate will be a key republican strategy – woe betide any public broadcaster that calls the Republic “Ireland”.

Those of us in the press, at least, have stumbled on a means to stay above the fray. Several British and Irish newspapers, including the Irish editions of UK titles, use some or all of “Northern Ireland”, “Ulster”, “province” and “the North” purely for stylistic reasons – to avoid repetition or shorten headlines.

After only a brief time using these terms interchangeably I simply stopped caring.

As far as Sinn Féin is concerned, that may well be the worst possible outcome.